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For many, this week marks a new chapter in their lives: the first week of university. Like countless students before them, those first few weeks are a flurry of experiences and opportunities that sets out the road to independence. However, that expectation that in four short years their education will be complete is rapidly becoming a relic of the past. Rather, they will be entering a professional world where in order to compete, they must embrace the ethos of life-long student.

Jim Carroll, a futurist and speaker based in Mississauga, describes the work force that students can expect to graduate into as one of "rapid knowledge obsolescence."

To adapt, professionals will need to possess "just-in-time knowledge" and continue learning in order to have the relevant information at the right time to suit a specific purpose.

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"We are never going to have the right skills and knowledge to do what needs to be done. The only way we will is to continue to reinvent ourselves, by updating our skills in order to maintain our relevance. We need to accept that as our reality," Mr. Carroll said.

That's why it made perfect sense to him when his son, who graduated in June from Carleton University in Ottawa with a bachelor of arts in physical geography with a minor in geomatics, immediately enrolled in a certificate program in geographic information systems at Ottawa's Algonquin College.

Yet, it's not only employees that need to adapt; universities, colleges and employers need to change their approaches to in order to stay competitive.

"Everything is going to change," Mr. Carroll said. "Universities and colleges aren't really prepared to give us what we need. Employers aren't really in the right frame of mind either since they rely on old outdated hiring models and recruitment. Also, if you are a graduate, and you don't have the right frame of mind that you need to continually maintain your skills, then you are wrong as well," he said.

The key, suggested Mr. Carroll, is to emphasize skill sets rather than degrees, but how? It's a problem that New York-based Markle Foundation has been trying to solve.

The Unites States, they observed, has a critical need for a skill-based labour market. There are currently 5.5 million job openings, but 6.5 million people are unemployed. They attribute part of this disconnect to the outdated methods employers use to vet candidates and discern skills.

Wan-Lae Cheng, senior director at the Markle Foundation, cites data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that shows 18 out of the 30 occupations in the U.S. with the largest projected growth by 2020 do not require a bachelor's degree. However, many employers require that candidates have a university degree even for roles that may not require them, a such as executive assistants and sale reps.

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"Seventy per cent of Americans don't have a college degree, but employers have a problem articulating the skills required for the problems they need to solve. There needs to be more paths of equal respect and dignity that gets people in good careers," Ms. Cheng said.

In order to remedy this gap, they partnered with LinkedIn and Arizona State University to launch Skillful, a technology platform that helps people navigate different career paths and training solutions to give them the skills they need for real jobs.

"A lot of the work we did up front was detailed research to understand what are the soft and hard skills that employees actually require. If you have the skills you can do the job well. The challenge for employers, is [a degree] is still to date one of their easiest proxies to filter out what skills they need. There is no other way to assess for those skills," she said.

While that may be true, some employers are searching for ways to look past those specific credentials.

Vanessa Federovich, vice-president of human resources and corporate services for Roche Canada, based in Mississauga, said that while a degree is often a prerequisite, they look for life-long learners who can thrive in an industry that changes so quickly.

"We look for those with a desire to learn and develop, for candidates with life experiences who travelled to broaden their mindset. We ask people to tell us about an interesting vacation they took to glean if they can deal with change or the unknown," Ms. Federovich said.

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To foster learning, the company has developed an in-house internship program that allows employees to try out new roles for six months to a year.

"When we go to market to look for people, we look for so much more [than a degree], including the ability to live in ambiguity. We need someone that thrives in an environment where they do one thing today and another thing tomorrow," Ms. Federovich said.

In other words, just-in-time knowledge, or as one of Mr. Carroll's favourite quotes from a well-known educator named Lewis Perelman put it, "learning is what most adults will do for a living in the 21st century."

Leah Eichler (@LeahEichler) writes about workplace trends

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